What will life at Arsenal be like after Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are gone? That is the question that has been facing the club all season, a more immediate concern even than life after Arsene Wenger, who at least has one more season left on his contract after this one.
Sanchez and Ozil, as everyone knows, are out of contract this summer. Wenger came closer than ever before to admitting that he is planning for life after them, at his press conference at London Colney first thing on Tuesday morning. “How do we cope with that? First of all, we have not lost them yet. Second, we will respond to that by bringing in players of top quality. This club has lost many, many big players and has always responded well.”
But the reality of this Arsenal team stripped of stars may be staring Wenger in the face already. Ozil missed Sunday’s trip to West Bromwich Albion with a knee injury, and he still only has a “small chance” for Wednesday night’s game with Chelsea at the Emirates. Sanchez, his two goals at Selhurst Park on 28 December aside, has been a detached figure in recent months. If Manchester City decide that Gabriel Jesus’s knee ligament injury means that they need a replacement up front, then Sanchez could very well be in his final days as an Arsenal player.
So there could be even more disruption ahead for an Arsenal team that is struggling for consistency. They have not won consecutive league games since November, and every time they look like they might string a run together they fall back into their bad old ways. After winning at Palace last week, they were minutes away from a win at the Hawthorns before conceding a frustrating penalty and drawing.
But there is an instructive example from the last time Arsenal played Chelsea, which shows they do not need to be too downcast. When Arsenal went to Chelsea on 17 September there were gloomy predictions that they would be rolled over yet again, especially with no Ozil in the team and Sanchez on the bench.
In reality, the under-strength Arsenal side performed better than anyone could have expected. Alexandre Lacazette, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck worked so hard in the front three that they pressed and pinned Chelsea back and held them to a 0-0 draw. It was not just that Arsenal did not miss Ozil and Sanchez, but they played in a way they would not have been able to do with them in the team.
Despite what Wenger said today, there is no way that Ozil and Sanchez will be replaced with equivalent quality if they leave this year. They are world-class players at the peak of their powers and buying two of those will cost well clear of £100m. But when Arsenal start to play without them – perhaps even against Chelsea on Wednesday – they may well find that they can play a more unified, aggressive game. And that may even help them to grind out results.